by Aaron Burns

HUNTERSVILLE – Gary Payne’s year-round specialty isn’t barbecuing.

A North Mecklenburg High School social studies teacher, Payne also takes the reins of North Mecklenburg’s barbecue fundraiser, one of the school’s biggest annual events, and cooks thousands of pounds of barbecue.

The 34th annual event takes place Oct. 26.

It began as an idea from parents, Payne said.

“It took on a life of itself from there,” he said.

“I’ve cooked barbecue for 30 years, since I was about 15. I got my start at Shamrock Drive Baptist Church (now Grace Crossing) in Charlotte. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Payne has spent the last seven or eight years as a part of North Mecklenburg’s barbecue event. Because the school has lost students and supporters to Hopewell and Hough High Schools, it’s tougher to attract people.

But that doesn’t stop Payne and an army of volunteers from continuing the tradition.

“We try to make it a countywide event,” he said. “We’ve cooked as much as 11,500 pounds of barbecue before. We order it through Dane Mills and Fat Boys Restaurant in Mooresville. Dane’s been extremely helpful with us.”

North Mecklenburg Athletics Director Kevin Wilson said Payne has had an impact on the event.

“Gary’s really taken over the cooking part of it,” he said. “He brought in some fresh ideas that have helped it keep going.”

One of those was to cook the barbecue a day or two in advance. It may not sound like much but when you’re cooking 6,000-7,000 pounds of pork like the Vikings plan to do this year, it’s a lot of work in one day.

For Payne, it’s a love of school and community.

“(North Mecklenburg) has been the county school,” he said. “We still have the largest alumni base at this end of the county. It’s a big event for the community.”

Still, Payne is humble about his efforts.

“I don’t look at myself as being the main ‘pit guy,’” he said. “I organize it and get people in the community involved. I try to get good people who enjoy to do it.”

The event is expected to raise at least $20,000 for the school.

Wilson, who has worked with the barbecue for 15 years, said he remains surprised by the public comments he receives.

“People always ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ But we do,” he said.

“We have several hundred people who volunteer for it (because) it really does take the community to make it work.”

Again, Wilson credits Payne and the community’s support.

“Gary always tells people, ‘As long as we have fuel and meat, it’s going to happen,’” he said. “And it does.”

Want to go?

The North Mecklenburg High barbecue fundraiser is Oct. 26.

Barbecue plates or 12 ounces of barbecue cost $8. Pre-order food online at Tickets are also available at the school.

A barbecue buffet, which serves 10, costs $80. It includes barbecue, buns, slaw and chips.

Pick up food between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Proceeds benefit North Mecklenburg High teachers, student programs and activities.